P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.11 - April 2017
“Why Write Poetry?”
by David Graham
At a reading once, Robert Frost posed a question for himself: “Why write poetry, anyway, when there’s such a thing as honest prose?” He then proceeded to supply a typically playful-but-serious Frostian reply: “I write poems to see if I can make them all sound different from each other.” His answer’s a good one, I think, stressing the joy of craft, experimentation, and sonic play. Donald Hall once called the same thing “messing in the mud of language,” and I doubt any serious poet lacks that basic childlike relish.
But there’s more to it, isn’t there? In pondering this question I remember writing my first poem, at age sixteen, titled “Why?” I’d never been moved to write a poem before, but having read John Hershey’s harrowing book on Hiroshima, I just had to express my turbulent emotions at the history detailed therein. As you would expect, given my age and complete lack of knowledge about poetry, the poem was not good. In my teaching days I used to employ it sometimes as a bad example, demonstrating some of the ways rhymed and metered poetry can go wrong. I won’t subject you to the entire piece, which is as earnest as it is awkward and trite, but here’s how it opens:
The sun drifts brightly off the sea. . . .
A cloud drifts slowly by. . . .
All is seemingly peaceful below,
Far below that deep blue sky.
The men joke playfully as they go,
Not talking of what is to come.
Who knows what are their secret thoughts
As they fly off into the sun?
As you can see, I was attempting to write in something like ballad meter, no doubt because that was all I knew, from hearing it in folk songs, hymns, and many pop songs on the radio. And I was doing it very badly. Oh, the poetic sins are manifold, even in this short excerpt. In addition to clunky meter, we find witless repetitions (“drifts,” “below,” etc.), adverb overkill, rhymes both predictable and imperfect, shopworn phrasing (“deep blue sky”) and both padding and redundancy. Can a cloud “drift” any way but “slowly,” for instance; and aren’t most jokes playful? Thematically, things are no better: the whole poem is painfully obvious, even though heartfelt.
The whole poem concludes forty lines later, I am embarrassed to say, in entirely melodramatic fashion, and in case it wasn’t obvious enough, by repeating the title question one more time:
Though above it still was peaceful,
The men all wondered why,
In the atomic blast below them,
One-hundred thousand had to die.
Eventually I recognized, mainly by reading good poetry (which at age sixteen I hadn’t yet begun doing) that my poem was very poor. For most people, that would have been the end of it. I daresay many if not most adolescents have been guilty of writing a few poems as a way of surviving those hormone-addled years, and most of them leave poetry behind, along with high school crushes and the like. Others of us persist, and the question remains: why?
The short answer is that I have no idea, really. It’s certainly not for the fame or fortune. Why devote so much of my life—years of intense devotion—to something of no practical or monetary value, something that won’t even benefit my health? Even if I were to become a poetry “star,” say Poet Laureate of the United States, I could still walk down the streets of any big city without much fear of being recognized.
I know I could recite all the intangible rewards poetry has gained me; and they are indeed real. I may take these up in later columns. It would also not be wrong to point out that, like love or faith, a devotion to any art form needs no justification, even as it may resist rational explanation. Somewhere in an interview James Wright recounts being asked why he was such a big fan of some hugely unpopular poet (I can’t remember who). But I’ve long remembered Wright’s answer: “Just lucky, I guess.” I can’t logically explain my passion for poetry, it’s true, but I definitely feel it as a form of good luck.
There is one thing of which I am sure. It’s not even close to an answer to the essential question, but it may point to something of even greater ultimate importance, I suspect. And that is how the practice of poetry, at least in my experience, resembles both love and faith in one crucial respect. Properly practiced, it strengthens and deepens over time. In other words, for me poetry is like married love—more of an activity than a state of mind or feeling. It’s something you do, not something you are. We probably all know the derivation of the word “poet” in the Greek word for “maker.” To be a poet is thus not to be some supersensitive or exalted creature but rather one who makes something memorable and artful out of the language that we all swim in every day. We do poetry; it doesn’t simply happen to us.
So I don’t subscribe to the Romantic notion of the Muse’s mysterious visitations, certainly not to the agonized but nevertheless effort-free form it assumes in popular imagination (e.g. Hollywood films). I’m not a harp being strummed by celestial winds. Nope. I sit at my desk every day and attempt to make something artful out of common speech. As a maker, I may even try to imitate and describe those celestial winds. Even if I don’t fully believe in them, I may well want you to hear them.
Thus my love of poetry grows directly from my practice of it. As with many basic enjoyments, repetition deepens rather than dulls the pleasure. That’s why I keep writing and pondering this art. In a way, it’s like the reverse of the old joke: “Why hit myself in the head with a hammer? Because it feels so good when I stop.” I keep at it because it feels so good when I don’t stop. At age sixteen I didn’t yet know that I knew this great truth, but I must have sensed it. I felt absolutely wonderful to have written my clunky, trite, naive poem, and yes, I’m glad today that I wrote it.
©2017 David Graham
Editor's Note: If you would like to write to David about this article, his email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org